The California supreme court has ruled that homosexual couples have the constitutional right to marry.
In a landmark ruling, California yesterday became the second US state, after Massachussetts, to permit full gay marriage. In doing so, it placed discrimination on the grounds of sexuality on the same level as that of racial discrimination.
The court came to its decision on a four to three verdict, striking down two state laws that had limited marriages to unions between a man and a woman. Other state high courts, including New Jersey, New York and Washington have considered the question of same-sex marriage in recent years, but have stopped short of striking down state laws forbidding it. The Connecticut Supreme Court is expected to give a ruling shortly shortly.
Chief Justice Ronald M George, in a statement for the majority, said that given the historic, cultural, symbolic and constitutional significance of marriage, the state could not limit its availability to opposite-sex couples.
"In view of the substance and significance of the fundamental constitutional right to form a family relationship, the California Constitution properly must be interpreted to guarantee this basic civil right to all Californians, whether gay or heterosexual, and to same-sex couples as well as to opposite-sex couples," said the judge.
Lawyers for the state (opposing gay marriage) identified two interests to justify reserving the term ‘marriage’ for heterosexual unions – tradition and the will of the majority but Chief Justice George said neither was sufficient. "As an historical matter," he said, "in this state marriage has always been restricted to a union between a man and a woman. But tradition alone does not justify the denial of a fundamental constitutional right."
Bans on interracial marriage, he pointed out, were also sanctioned by the state for many years and California was the first state to overturn them, in the 1948 Perez vs Sharp ruling.
About 110,000 same-sex couples live in California and although laws exist to give gay couples rights similar to marriage, most felt that these were still discriminatory.
Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who opposes gay marriage, has stated that he respects the ruling and does not support a constitutional amendment to overturn it.
Neil Giuliano, president of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, stated: "Today’s ruling affirms that committed couples, gay and straight, should not be denied the duties, obligations and protections of marriage. This decision is a vital affirmation to countless California couples – straight and gay – who want to make, and have made, a lifelong commitment to take care of and be responsible for each other."
If all goes well, this means gay couples should be able to marry in about a month. Among those to benefit from the new ruling will be high-profile couple Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi. DeGeneres announced their intention to marry during taping of her talkshow yesterday, which will be aired today.
Europe lags behind California, with only Belgium, the Netherlands and Spain permitting same-sex marriage. It is also permitted in Canada and South Africa.